Spain 3-0 Nigeria: Alba & Pedro crucial in a more direct match than Spain are accustomed to

June 25, 2013

The starting line-ups

Nigeria were more adventurous than the majority of Spain’s opponents, but they left plenty of space for the World Champions to break into.

After changing almost his entire team for the thrashing of Tahiti, Vicente del Bosque returned to the outfield side that defeated Uruguay, although Victor Valdes was in goal.

Stephen Keshi brought back Sunday Mba in a straight swap for John Ogu, while Joseph Akpala started upfront with Ideye Brown moving to the flank.

This wasn’t a typical Spain match – the play flowed from end to end very quickly, and both sides had plenty of chances.

Fabregas / Iniesta

Although Spain kept the same outfield side as in their opening match, the roles of Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta were very different.

In the win over Uruguay, Iniesta was on the left of a 4-2-3-1 and drifted infield, while Fabregas played as the number ten. However, here they played different roles and Spain were arguably more 4-3-3, with Iniesta in something close to his Barcelona role on the left of a three-man midfield, and Fabregas as part of the front trio, to the left of the pitch.

The difference was relatively minimal but still crucial in the way both men played. Crucially, there was no congestion between the duo, with Fabregas breaking in behind and Iniesta collecting short passes before slaloming past midfield opponents. Iniesta, in particular, was superb.

Space for Alba

Regardless of Fabregas and Iniesta’s positioning, the key was that neither played wide-left and therefore, like against Uruguay, Jordi Alba had plenty of space to charge into.

He was a constant force on the flank, with Ideye Brown showing little interest in tracking his runs. Alba bookended the game with two fantastic goals – a dribble forward past various opponents after powerful run past Brown, and then later a counter-attacking run behind the defence after Spain were defending a set-piece.

This fast-paced, end-to-end match played into Alba’s hands, and underlined his position as Spain’s most important player because he contributes something unique and distinct. The first goal, in particular, was a great example of how Spain’s system works – Busquets dropped into defence to encourage the full-backs forward, Iniesta and Fabregas both joined Xavi Hernandez to overload the centre, than Alba sprinted forward to take advantage of his freedom down the left.

Nigeria pressure in midfield

Whereas many sides drop deep against Spain, with their back four on the edge of the box and the midfield protecting them keenly, Nigeria were more proactive with their midfield positioning.

There was no pressuring Spain’s defence, but Mba and Akpala were often close to the midfield four and helped pressure Sergio Busquets and sometimes Xavi, with help from John Obi Mikel. This meant Spain’s passing wasn’t as crisp and reliable as usual in these deep midfield positions, especially in the first half.

Gaps between the lines

However, the bravery of the midfield meant the defence were in a difficult position – literally. Nigeria suffered from problems in both directions – sometimes the defence weren’t high enough and left gaps between the lines for Fabregas and Iniesta, and sometimes they appeared too high, allowing Soldado and Fabregas space in behind. In reality, the problem wasn’t really with the back four, but started from the position of the midfield and was exaggerated by Spain’s brilliant passing and movement. This, essentially, is why not many sides play this way against Spain.

Interestingly, Pedro helped exploit the space in both respects. He and Alba are crucial to Spain and Barcelona because of their width and directness, and it was interesting that as well as making runs in behind Elderson Echiejile, Pedro also darted inside between the lines, sensing space in behind Mikel and away from Fegor Ogudo. That rather summed up Nigeria’s problem – there was too much space both behind, and in front of, their back four.

Nigeria cause problems

Nigeria’s proactive midfield play and pace on the break caused problems, however, and there were three areas in particular where they seemed dangerous.

First, for the second consecutive game, Mikel was extremely impressive in his midfield role – showing skill and creativity on the ball, playing passes towards the front three. Xavi was often too deep to stop him – partly because Busquets spent much of his time between the centre-backs, so Xavi was playing deep himself.

Second, Musa continues to be a hugely dangerous counter-attacking option. His acceleration is incredible, and although his final pass needs to improve, he often hits very early crosses in behind the defence for forwards to run onto – had Nigeria been blessed with better quality in the penalty box, one of Musa’s balls may have been an assist.

Third, Spain’s narrowness on the left caused problems without the ball. Alba was forced to defend against Brown, which meant there was a huge amount of space ahead of him, with Fabregas often not covering. Right-back Efe Ambrose pushed forward and produced two excellent crosses – again, one should have been converted.

Such was the Nigerian pressure, you wondered whether Del Bosque would consider introducing Javi Martinez at half-time, to reinstate his double pivot – this was a good advertisement for that system, considering how Spain were rather bullied deep in midfield.

Second half

Musa and Brown switched after half-time, possibly because Keshi thought Musa would do a better defensive job against Alba, and prevent the left-back from making so many forward bursts, for fear of leaving space for Musa to break into.

Pedro was also prominent at the start of the second half, again darting inside from his right-sided position. However, Fabregas’ injury saw David Silva come on and play on the right, which meant Pedro moved to the left – where his trickery set up another substitute, Fernando Torres, for the second goal.

That killed the contest – for the second game running, Keshi was only able to replace his two central attackers with straight swaps, rather than introduce anything new, and Spain controlled the final half hour as Nigeria tired.


From Spain’s point of view, this was an unusual match. They didn’t have such control over the contest – although still finished with 64% of possession and a 92% pass completion rate – and were often forced to play more directly, which was why Alba and Pedro were prominent, and Iniesta’s forward dribbles were so effective too.

From Nigeria’s perspective, however, it was more of the same – they looked promising on the break without having the necessary quality to test the opposition goalkeeper regularly. Their bravery in midfield was interesting and meant they won the ball high up the pitch more frequently than many of Spain’s opponents, but it caused problems for the back four who were stretched in two different directions throughout the game.

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